Last week we told you about the rise of Peoria as “Whiskey City-USA”.
From the 1840’s to 1919, there was more liquor produced in the Peoria area than anywhere else in the country. And even after prohibition, the Hiram Walker distillery in Peoria was the world’s largest.
That came to an end in the 1980’s when the plant was sold to ADM.
But in August of 2017, ADM said it would return the Peoria dry mill to producing more profitable industrial and beverage alcohol.
Meanwhile, there’s been a resurgence of what’s called “craft distilleries” including a modern distiller locally with ties to the past.
The place we’re talking about is J.K. Williams Distilling in East Peoria. It’s not a big place and it will never rival Hiram. But that’s OK.
“Our goal is to grow within the quality of our product,” says Jesse Williams of J.K. Williams Distilling. “Not to exceed the point where we can control things to make sure we’re producing quality spirits as we want to.”
Jesse Williams, along with his brother Jon, own the distillery. They are not J.K. Williams. The J.K. we’re referring to is Jesse’s great grandfather. He learned the distilling trade in Peoria and when prohibition came along he became a moonshiner.
“Through prohibition, he supported his family by producing illegal spirits,” says Jesse. “Being a moonshiner as they would call it, a bootlegger,” he says. “It was not something they were real proud of later on.”
Jesse says they’ve got their great-grandfather’s recipe to make a 100-proof un-aged corn whiskey: Legal White lightning.
Visitors to the East Peoria distillery will find flavors great grandfather Williams would never have thought of – like peach, apple pie and coffee.
“The industry of spirits has come a long way from what it was 100 years ago,” according to Jesse. “If he could see what we’re doing, I hope he’d be proud, obviously.”
A tour of the distillery shows a 60 gallon still. Distilling at the location in East Peoria is not the continuous process it is at the big companies. Jesse says that makes their whiskey better.
In another room are the barrels of aging spirits several of these flavors, including one with coffee, have won awards for their quality.
None of this means Peoria will regain the title of “Whiskey City” but it does serve as a reminder of that past.
“It’s one of our main goals,” Jesse says. “To educate people as to how the craft industry works, learn about craft distilling as well as a little about Peoria history.”
J.K. Williams is closing its doors at the end of the month.
You can still tour the facility Saturday, February 24, and Sunday, February 25.